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What is the One Question You Should Ask in an Interview?

February 10, 2015

“What is the one thing you should ask in an interview to help you decide whom to hire?”

Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, was presented with this question at a convention of insurance executives a few years ago. In his book, Winning, Welch mentions that he was completely stumped and it was one of the most difficult questions he had ever been asked. His exact response, “The one thing? I can’t come up with one.”

When I first read this question, I had the same initial response as Welch. One question is very limiting. During a job analysis, we attempt to uncover all of the competencies, or knowledge, skills, and abilities, which are critical for successful job performance. I have never completed a job analysis which resulted in identifying only one competency important for success. Alternatively, there are several competencies that arise as being important for the job.

Interviews are a good opportunity to assess candidates’ competencies and to determine if they have the requisite skill levels to function effectively in the job. In particular, during structured interviews, we develop behavior-based questions that target a specific competency. As a result, interviews usually contain several questions because we are attempting to measure the most important job competencies.

Limiting ourselves to one question would really do us a disservice. Essentially, we will very likely commit the common interviewing error, missing data. The missing data error occurs when all of the relevant information is not collected on the candidate. This can be problematic because it could either lead people to hire a less qualified candidate or to pass on a well qualified candidate. For example, what if you hired someone for a production position but it turns out the employee has low levels of safety orientation? Manufacturing jobs require employees to engage in safe behaviors so not assessing this during the hiring process would lead to a poor hiring decision, even if all other aspects of the candidate were positive. Other competencies are not able to make up for a lack safety easily and therefore this missing information can create major problems down the line.

This is one of the major reasons why we recommend conducting a structured interview. Structured interviews are created with the job position in mind. A job analysis informs us of all the competencies that should be assessed for that target position. By having all the relevant and important competencies included with specific questions tied to each, we are much less likely to have missing data. All of the “reminders” of what is important for the job are included in the interview guide, and now it’s left to the interviewers to probe and make sure that they are getting enough information to assess a candidate’s ability level on each competency.

Turning back to Winning, at the end of the chapter Welch talks about how he would respond to the impossible question now that he has had several years to reflect. The question that he would pose to a candidate is: Why did you leave your previous job(s)? In essence, this question is asking about motivational fit. What are the candidate’s preferences and do they align with what the current job and organization offers? For example, maybe the candidate responds by saying that he left the job because there was not enough variety in the types of tasks he was doing. If the target position has a lot of task variety, then there is a higher level of fit. However, if the target position includes very basic and similar tasks, then there would be low alignment or fit. Candidates with lower motivational fit are much less likely to stay on the job and may not be the best hire.

Now, would we recommend asking only one question to a candidate? No. However, if you know that the candidate is well qualified and has the skills necessary for the job, a question related to motivational fit, similar to Welch’s question, could provide a lot of valuable information for your hiring decision.

Alissa Parr, Ph.D. Alissa Parr, Ph.D. is a Senior Consultant at PSI. Her areas of expertise include the development, implementation, and evaluation of assessment processes. Alissa has experience managing entry-level through executive level assessment and selection efforts across a number of different industries including government, financial, military, education, healthcare, and manufacturing.